Ecommerce Marketing / How To Sell Online

1,018 Brands Disclose Their Holiday Ecommerce Plans: How Do You Stack Up?

/ 13 min read

The holidays are no easy time of year for online stores. While some sit it out entirely, the vast majority of online brands look to the holidays as a final year-end cap on revenue.

And often, Black Friday to Cyber Monday can make or break a business's entire fiscal forecast (here are some statistics from Cyber Week 2017.

There are plenty of online articles out there –– heck, we even ran one –– where industry experts and influencers advise of which seasonal marketing strategies online brands and ecommerce marketers should use to ensure their store gets a fair share of the holiday ecommerce revenue.

But if there is one thing I’ve learned in this industry, it is this:

No advice compares to that coming straight from ecommerce business owners and marketing managers themselves.

  • These are the people in the trenches.
  • They are your colleagues.
  • They are your competition.

And ultimately, the most innovative and successful of what they do this time of year is what the industry experts and influencers will recommend next year anyway.

So, we decided to go to that source –– and survey more than 1,000 online business owners, ecommerce managers and brand marketers on what they are planning and expecting for the 2017 holiday season.

In particular, we wanted to know:

  1. When most brands start seeing the seasonal uptick in sales
  2. How early most brands begin to prepare, plan and then launch holiday campaigns
  3. If brands thought their sales would increase this year (2017), and if so, by how much
  4. The tools most brands use to measure success of these campaigns
  5. If anyone plans on hiring additional, seasonal staff –– and if so –– in which departments
  6. Which sales channels produce the most holiday ecommerce revenue
  7. Which marketing and advertising channels produce the highest return (and revenue)
  8. If brands are planning to use discounts –- and if so, what kind
  9. What keeps store owners and managers awake at night during these holiday campaigns

So, without further ado, here is what 1,018 brands reported they will do for the 2017 holiday shopping season.

The only question left to ask is:

How do you compare?

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When Holiday Ecommerce Sales Spike

Nearly 57% of brands surveyed (56.88%) see their sales spike in Q4 –– likely due to a seasonal uptick in consumer purchasing for the holidays.

Q2 is the second most-reported high sales quarter, likely accounting for Mother’s Day and the pre-summer season.

15% of brands report no seasonal change in sales throughout the year. Brands that don't experience seasonality tend to sell B2B or products like office / industrial equipment.

Here is a snapshot of seasonality as a percentage of responses:

  • Q1, January - March: 8.74%
  • Q2, April - June: 10.41%
  • Q3, July - September: 8.84%
  • Q4, October - December: 56.88%
  • No season change: 15.13%

While 57% of brands reported Q4 as their typical high sales season, 88.65% of brands expect to see an increase in revenue this holiday season, illustrating the optimism many merchants feel heading into what will likely be the largest online shopping event in history.

Nearly 40% of respondents expect to see a more than 25% increase in sales.

5.4% expect to see a more than 100% increase YoY in holiday sales in 2017.

Here is how the data breaks down, showing the percentage of respondents who expect to make more than a given % in YoY holiday revenue for 2017.

  • 1-25% sales increase: 50.28%
  • 25-50% sales increase: 22.91%
  • 51-75% sales increase: 6.52%
  • 76-100% sales increase: 3.54%
  • More than 100% sales increase: 5.4%
  • No sales increase expected: 6.33%
  • Decrease in sales expected: 5.03%

There’s No Such Thing as Being Over Prepared

Nearly 53% of brands (52.68%) report they began holiday campaign planning for the 2016 season in Q3 –– 21% of them in September.

But October ranked #3 as the most popular month brands began holiday campaign planning in 2016, behind September and August.

Here’s when brands reported they began holiday planning this year:

  • January: 7.58%
  • February: 1.66%
  • March: 1.85%
  • April: 3.51%
  • May: 3.7%
  • June: 7.02%
  • July: 12.94%
  • August: 18.48%
  • September: 21.26%
  • October: 13.68%
  • November: 4.62%
  • December: 0.37%
  • Did not sell last year: 3.33%

So, did 2016 work out? Did these brands learn anything from that their experience last year that caused them to change course as they prepare for the upcoming holiday shopping season?

Seems like at least 37.52% of them did –– with those reporting they began holiday planning 1-4 months earlier in 2017.

Here is how the percentages break out for how brands changed (or didn’t) their holiday planning timeline in 2017.

  • Began 1-2 months earlier: 31.05%
  • Began 3-4 months earlier: 4.44%
  • Began more than 4 months earlier: 2.03%
  • No change: 53.79%
  • Began 1-2 months later: 3.88%
  • Began 3-4 month later: 1.29%
  • Began more than 4 months later: 0.37%
  • Was not selling last year: 3.14%

How Brands Measure Campaign Success

The measurement of campaign success is vital to understanding how and if the holiday campaign planning and stress is even worth it.

More than that, it is vital to understanding which campaigns and tactics actually worked –– and which can be scraped for next year.

65.8% of respondents rely on their BigCommerce Analytics + Insights to provide data understanding of what worked, what didn’t and for which customer segments.

Google Analytics is also popular with the survey set (whom were allowed to choose multiple tools they use), with 61.55% of respondents using Google’s platform.

Here are the tools brands most often use to measure holiday campaign success:

  • BigCommerce Analytics + Insights: 65.8%
  • Google Analytics: 61.55%
  • Moz: 2.59%
  • CrazyEgg: 1.11%
  • Other: 22.74%

The most popular tools written in by survey takers who answered in the “Other” category include:

  • Quickbooks: 8.94%
  • Square: 6.5%
  • Spreadsheets: 4.88%
  • Amazon: 4.07%
  • Springbot: 3.25%
  • ShipStation: 2.44%
  • MailChimp: 1.63%

Hiring Helping Hands & Friendly Faces

This has been a big year for press about retail store closures. Our survey highlights that these headwinds are mostly impacting old, legacy retailers and not today's more modern, nimble brands which continue to grow and hire.

Instead, the survey data we found aligns with industry data that shows ecommerce is not killing retail job growth, but moving that growth into other areas outside of brick-and-mortar stores.

Nearly 29% of ecommerce businesses plan to hire additional staff this holiday season.

Just how many? Here’s how that breaks down.

  • 5 or less people: 87.33%
  • 6-15 people: 9.33%
  • 16-30 people: 2.67%
  • More than 30 people: 0.67%

What will the vast majority of these seasonal workers be doing? Fulfillment.

Here is where hiring allocation will be distributed.

  • Customer support: 29.33%
  • Retail stores: 21.33%
  • Warehouse & fulfillment: 75.33%
  • Other: 12.67%

For the “Other” category, manufacturing was the primary hiring allocation call out.

The Sales & Advertising Channels That Matter Most

Traditional retail channels like your branded site or brick-and-mortar store still dominate holiday purchases, but marketplaces like Amazon and social media channels are gaining traction.

Here’s the breakdown of where brands expect to make their sales this holiday season:

  • Branded website: 64.66%
  • Owned retail store: 24.7%
  • Amazon: 24.5%
  • Facebook: 17.47%
  • Wholesale + Distributors: 17.07%
  • Other: 10.84%
  • Etsy: 7.23%
  • Instagram: 6.22%
  • Pinterest: 2.21%
  • Walmart.com: 1.61%

For the “Other” category, markets and fairs made up the majority of responses.

OK, but what about marketing & advertising channels?

Great question –– and BIG news!

Facebook has usurped holiday email campaigns as the primary channel expected to be successful for holiday marketing campaigns.

Oh course, it hasn’t usurped it by much!

  • Facebook: 51.61%
  • Email marketing: 51.2% 

Google Shopping, SEO and Instagram all come next.

Here’s are the channels brands say are the most effective for holiday promotion marketing and advertising:

  • Facebook: 51.61%
  • Email campaigns: 51.2%
  • Instagram: 29.32%
  • SEO: 24.9%
  • Google Shopping: 25.3%
  • Google Retargeting: 13.25%
  • Other: 9.64%
  • Pinterest: 9.44%
  • Trade shows: 8.84%
  • Influencers: 8.03%
  • Twitter: 6.83%
  • Print: 6.22%
  • SEM: 3.82%
  • Affiliates: 3.21%
  • Radio: 2.61%
  • TV: 2.01%
  • Podcasts: 0.6%

Amazon and Word of Mouth marketing were the two primary manual entries for the “Other” category.

The Promos + Discounts You Can Expect to See in 2017

78.67% of brands plan to use promos and discounts to drive up holiday sales.

But what kind of promos? That’s what we set out to find out. Here’s how the data broke down:

  • Price discounts: 66.26%
  • Free shipping with minimum order: 44.44%
  • Flash sales: 40.12%
  • Free shipping: 25.51%
  • Product bundling: 23.66%
  • Buy-One-Get-One: 13.99%
  • Other: 12.76%
  • Expedited or same-day shipping: 11.11%

Gift with purchase made up the majority of the “Other” category.

Brand Concerns, Fears and Follies Over the Holiday Rush

Alright –- so now that we know what, when and why brands are planning –– let’s have a look at what keeps them up at night.

We know Black Friday is the highest web traffic day of the year –– and for the past 3 years, it’s been the highest web traffic day in history (with no signs of slowing).

There’s a lot riding on that day. You need your site to stay up. You need your checkout to work. You need to have inventory available and you need to be able to get it out that day.

It’s one thing to run a successful campaign, and another to make those purchasers happy customers.

And brands have all of these things in mind. Here’s how the percentages break down between what is causing them the most concern.

  • Sufficient inventory: 50.63%
  • Shipping and delivery expectations: 45.19%
  • Cost of advertising: 36.19%
  • Rising shipping rates: 32.43%
  • Site stability and performance: 30.75%
  • Competitive pricing across the web: 30.54%
  • Volume of customer service needs: 26.15%
  • Fraud and chargebacks: 21.13%
  • Staffing: 14.85%
  • Other: 6.9%

Amazon fears make up the majority of the “Other” category.

9 Tips + Tricks to Improve Your Holiday Campaigns Right Now

Download our free holiday campaign report and get 9 actionable tips you can take right now to make more money this holiday season.

Start building a better campaign here.

7 Brands Explain Their Most Successful Campaign Yet 

In conducting this survey, I wanted to make sure that I got to speak with some of the brands involved to find out more about their most-successful-ever holiday campaigns.

Why?


Because data is good. It can help you benchmark and predict. But it isn’t human. It can’t tell you what went wrong. It can’t grab at your emotions.

Only real stories can do that.

So, I interviewed 7 brands who participated in the survey to understand what their most successful campaigns were, how much sales increased from them and what they would do differently if they could.

Here is the Q&A.

What has been your most successful holiday promotion to date?

  • Lorrie Corsetti, Owner, What's Up Dox Dachshund Shoppe: There are 2 that were equally successful. One was a Christmas promo during Black Friday to Cyber Monday. The other was a fall/winter promo for dachshund sweaters that ran October through December.
  • Rachel Piacenta, Operations Manager, JANT girl: We ran a "receive a free cinch bag with every purchase" campaign Black Friday through Cyber Monday.
  • Alan Poulton, Owner, Kuseno Comfort Products: Our December Advent Calendar was our most successful campaign to date. I compiled and randomized a list of 24 different promotions (dollar and percentage discounts, BOGO, shipping discounts, free product, etc.) all using the various marketing tools in BigCommerce. Every day on my Facebook page, a new deal would be revealed –– like opening the door on an Advent Calendar. Customers could take advantage of the sale of the day, or take their chances to see if a better deal might come up.
  • Jason McIntyre, Owner & General Manager, Christmas Elves + Witches of Halloween: We partnered with other businesses, charities and influencers to promote our Million Lights for Charity –– our most successful holiday campaign ever. We compare our progress YoY since we are a Christmas and Halloween decoration company. This means we have a multi-faceted promotion with 41 categories of Christmas decorations. We designed a range of connectable lighting for both Christmas and Halloween. And then launched our A Million Lights for Charity promotion, which helped local charities with every purchase of Christmas or Halloween lights by consumers.
  • Drew Steimel, Owner, DKOldies: Black Friday/Cyber Monday Promotion, We promote our best video games and consoles and promote new sales every day starting Wednesday and Ending Cyber Monday.
  • Adam Butler, Owner, Sluggers Swimwear: We did a gift with purchase for the holidays –– a free beach towel with purchase over $125.
  • Jennifer Fletcher, Manager + Content Creator, Lindsey Stirling: Our most successful holiday campaign was centered around a 50% off digital downloads.

How did you drive traffic?

  • Lorrie Corsetti, Owner, What's Up Dox Dachshund Shoppe: Mainly Facebook. My customer demographic is 30 to 60-year-olds, 85% of which are women. This group spends more time on Facebook than any of the other social media platforms, so I have spent a lot of time building my Facebook page following.
  • Also, I run Google Ads constantly. This year I've incorporated Instagram, but Facebook is still king.
  • Rachel Piacenta, Operations Manager, JANT girl: We utilized social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and SnapChat) and email campaigns.
  • Alan Poulton, Owner, Kuseno Comfort Products: Initially, we sent an email newsletter promoting the sale, then scheduled Facebook posts every morning with the day's sale. I also had a banner ad on the front page of my site promoting the promotion and directing traffic to Facebook.
  • Jason McIntyre, Owner & General Manager, Christmas Elves + Witches of Halloween: We created a comprehensive digital and marketing strategy. This included improving our Google Adwords, SEO enhancements, social media and engaging with local influencers and charities. We also added a graphic to our email footer promoting A Million Lights for Charity. Our partners would also help with our charity drive, which in turn drove customers and referrals to our business –– both in store and online.
  • Drew Steimel, Owner, DKOldies: We used email, Facebook and Google Adwords.
  • Adam Butler, Owner, Sluggers Swimwear: We offered a free beach towel with any purchase over $125. We promoted the offer with our EDM and banners on the site and used the Cart Coupon feature. It was a conscious decision to promote this only to our existing customers and visitors to our site. We didn't want traffic for the sake of traffic. We wanted to encourage existing shoppers to spend a little more with us.
  • Jennifer Fletcher, Manager + Content Creator, Lindsey Stirling: We used social media and a banner on the website.

When did you start driving traffic and when did you stop?

  • Lorrie Corsetti, Owner, What's Up Dox Dachshund Shoppe: I never stop, but for the holidays I really begin ramping up in October. I don't run Christmas-y promos until Black Friday weekend because I believe most people find it pushy and annoying. No one wants to see Santa alongside the candy corn. But I begin to heavily promote cozy items for people and their dachshunds: hoodies, sweaters, scarves, blankets, etc. These promos give people gift ideas or things to add to their wish lists without rushing the season. Overt commercialism is not my style.
  • Rachel Piacenta, Operations Manager, JANT girl: We began 11/20/16 and stopped 11/28/16.
  • Alan Poulton, Owner, Kuseno Comfort Products: Dec 1 to Dec 24.
  • Jason McIntyre, Owner & General Manager, Christmas Elves + Witches of Halloween: We start driving traffic from September (which corresponds to the time when we open our bricks and mortar stores 7 days a week). Our Million Lights for Charity started in January and finished Christmas Day.
  • Drew Steimel, Owner, DKOldies: We started 2 weeks before Black Friday.
  • Adam Butler, Owner, Sluggers Swimwear: Our offer was while stocks lasted –– so we started in mid November and ran out of towels just after Christmas. We also offered the towels for purchase, which gave them a greater perceived value than a free promo towel.
  • Jennifer Fletcher, Manager + Content Creator, Lindsey Stirling: started Black Friday and ended two weeks later.

How much did conversions and sales increase in comparison to other promotions or times of year?

  • Lorrie Corsetti, Owner, What's Up Dox Dachshund Shoppe: I make 60% of my income between Oct and December. The dog sweater promo increased sales about 40% compared to other promos of dog items I ran. I could not keep them in stock. The Black Friday promo was close to 35% compared to Mother's Day which is the second biggest holiday for me.
  • Rachel Piacenta, Operations Manager, JANT girl: 81%
  • Alan Poulton, Owner, Kuseno Comfort Products: Sales were up 158% over December 2015
  • Jason McIntyre, Owner & General Manager, Christmas Elves + Witches of Halloween: Our online store increased 100% compared to the previous year. Our promotion for A Million Lights for Charity helped to increase our Christmas Lights sales by 137% online compared to the previous year.
  • Drew Steimel, Owner, DKOldies: Last Cyber Monday we did $37,000 on that day and it is about a 700% increase in sales.
  • Adam Butler, Owner, Sluggers Swimwear: We doubled our sales year on year, and continue to do so this year.
  • Jennifer Fletcher, Manager + Content Creator, Lindsey Stirling: Sold approximately 4x as much as we normally sold during other periods of the year.

What was the most unexpected part of this promotion?

  • Lorrie Corsetti, Owner, What's Up Dox Dachshund Shoppe: Everything about the Dog Sweater promo was unexpected. Dachshunds, with their long low sausage shapes, are notoriously hard to fit. Once dachshund parents saw the ad it got shared much more than I anticipated. And when the sweaters started getting 5-star reviews it increased even more. All the time I spent photographing my dogs in various sweaters was certainly time well spent. Although they may disagree. As for the Christmas promo, customers did not take advantage of the free gift offer as much as I anticipated.
  • Rachel Piacenta, Operations Manager, JANT girl: We typically give a free cinch bag with most website purchases, but because we treated it as a promotion, we had more sales.
  • Alan Poulton, Owner, Kuseno Comfort Products: I had people message me on Facebook to ask what the best day would be to place their order.
  • Jason McIntyre, Owner & General Manager, Christmas Elves + Witches of Halloween: We underestimated the volume of queries during the lead up to Christmas. Customer service is a priority for us, and this means we need more staff actively responding to customers via in-store, phone, email & social media.
  • Drew Steimel, Owner, DKOldies: How the Black Friday people started shopping earlier, causing a smaller Black Friday, but bigger week overall. At the same time the Cyber Monday crowd was even larger.
  • Adam Butler, Owner, Sluggers Swimwear: We had people come back and buy more towels! We offered a high quality Turkish beach towel, and had customers who had received the towel come back and buy more for their family and friends. We were also surprised to see a lot of very positive comments on social media letting us know that our customers were impressed by our generosity –– the towels were really high quality and a great match for our product and customer. We also had customers buying multiple products in different orders to trigger the offer, and that was really cool. They went out of their way to get it.
  • Jennifer Fletcher, Manager + Content Creator, Lindsey Stirling: We halfed the price and doubled the profit!

Would you have done anything differently?

  • Lorrie Corsetti, Owner, What's Up Dox Dachshund Shoppe: I learn something from every promo. What I would have done differently is place the promos on more pages of the website and utilize more cart-level discounts rather than coupons.
  • Rachel Piacenta, Operations Manager, JANT girl: We have recently re-branded so it would have been nice to put a flyer in each bag explaining that. We did not know we were re-branding until July of this year so we didn't have that foresight last year. This year we will be sure to announce our re-branding to all customers.
  • Alan Poulton, Owner, Kuseno Comfort Products: I'd consider also emailing the day's promotion every day. I initially decided against it because I thought I would lose subscribers. Maybe if the email is kept short enough, people wouldn't unsubscribe.
  • Jason McIntyre, Owner & General Manager, Christmas Elves + Witches of Halloween: More planning is required, because when we start selling and fulfilling orders, it becomes difficult to focus on marketing & promotions. This year we will have a dedicated project manager to our Christmas Lights marketing program.
  • Drew Steimel, Owner, DKOldies: Yes, we will more aggressively go after social media ads and engagement.
  • Adam Butler, Owner, Sluggers Swimwear: I would've paid more attention to the weight of the towel! The promotion was overwhelmingly positive for a very small outlay, but we found that we undercharged for postage to some parts of the world so it cost us a little more than we had expected –– but not much.
  • Jennifer Fletcher, Manager + Content Creator, Lindsey Stirling: We do a sale twice a year (two weeks at the end of May and two weeks following Black Friday). We started offering 40% off instead of 50% because we realized we were able to sell close to as much and take home more profit.

What advice would you give to other businesses planning their holiday promotions?

  • Lorrie Corsetti, Owner, What's Up Dox Dachshund Shoppe: I learn something from every promo. What I would have done differently is place the promos on more pages of the website and utilize more cart-level discounts rather than coupons.
  • Rachel Piacenta, Operations Manager, JANT girl: Sometimes the packaging your product comes in can act as a free "giveaway" without you having to invest too much money on a particular promotion.
  • Alan Poulton, Owner, Kuseno Comfort Products: Give yourself plenty of time to plan everything, have it ready to go weeks before it starts so you have time to tweak if needed.
  • Jason McIntyre, Owner & General Manager, Christmas Elves + Witches of Halloween: Planning your promotions is essential. If you are working with other business and charities start early and be very clear what is expected from all parties. Define the objectives and outcomes, be aware of the costs and expected results. If you are working with charities and expect them to assist in your promotional activities have a schedule when each task is to take place. Follow-up with all stake holders when they are expected to occur. Ensure you are clear where you want your online visitors to land (not your home page). Be specific and be relevant. Here is our Million Lights for Charity landing page.
  • Drew Steimel, Owner, DKOldies: Plan early and tell people early and often. Understand what people want to buy as gifts and give people something to get excited about throughout the whole week.
  • Adam Butler, Owner, Sluggers Swimwear: Think about who your customer is and why they come to you –– then offer them something that enhances that. Everyone can offer a percentage off their product –– but you risk reducing the perceived value of your product. We made an offer that enhanced the value of our product and made our customer feel good about their purchase. We gave our customer something that they wanted and by adding a small piece of branding to their towel we can remind them of our product all year long. It costs a lot to acquire a new customer, and a holiday promotion can really do a lot to strengthen the relationship between your customer and your brand.
  • Jennifer Fletcher, Manager + Content Creator, Lindsey Stirling: Digital sales are great because once they are created, there is minimal upkeep and inventory is irrelevant. Also, we have two different stores (merchandise and sheet music) for my client and one points to the other to increase product exposure and interest.

9 Tips + Tricks to Improve Your Holiday Campaigns Right Now

Download our free holiday campaign report and get 9 actionable tips you can take right now to make more money this holiday shopping season.

Start building a better campaign here.

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